Monday, December 17, 2012

best of 2012: fiction

Here's my list of the ten best novels I read this year.  A few notes before I begin:

  • Not all of these were first published in 2012, but that's when I first read them.
  • G, please skip #1 and #3 because I might make you read them at some point.
  • Strangely enough, every one of these books was written by a woman, which was also the case for my nonfiction list.  I don't think that's ever happened before!  And, of course, it's a coincidence, not me going "Rawr abolish the phallocracy rawr".
  • Your mileage may vary.
  • Aside from the first title listed, these aren't necessarily in order.

1. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn:  On their fifth anniversary, Nick Dunne's wife Amy disappears. 

...and that's all I'm going to tell you, because the less you know about the plot, the better.  Trust me on this.  It's a dizzying, gleefully nasty, blackly funny masterpiece, and easily my favorite novel of 2012.

2. Faithful Place by Tana French:  As a teenager, Frank Mackey made plans with his girlfriend Rosie to run away to England and never look back.  But on the night they're supposed to leave, Frank finds a note implying that Rosie left without him, and he never sees her again.  22 years later, Frank is an undercover cop, and he gets a frantic phone call from his sister telling him that someone found Rosie's suitcase in an abandoned building.  Reluctantly, he returns to his old neighborhood and dysfunctional family to find out the truth behind the disappearance of his first love.  Razor sharp dialogue and an intriguing plot made 400 pages fly by at the speed of light. 

3. Pure by Julianna Baggott:  After surviving a nuclear holocaust known as the Detonations, Pressia ekes out a meager existence with her grandfather, foraging for food where she can and trying to avoid the soldiers who either want to recruit her or use her as live target practice.  Partridge is a "Pure", one of the lucky citizens who managed to escape the blasts inside a shelter known as the Dome.  But their worlds collide when Partridge escapes the Dome, looking for the mother he thinks may still be alive.

As soon as I saw the blurb on the back that described Pressia as "part manga heroine, part post-apocalyptic Alice", I knew I had to pick it up.  It turned out to be a great choice, because this is the best  dystopian novel I've read since The Hunger Games.  It's utterly riveting, with some indelible characters and truly creepy scenes.   The next installment (Fuse, coming out in February 2013) will be an instant purchase for me. 

4. Kill You Twice by Chelsea Cain:  Portland detective Archie Sheridan has a complicated relationship with the so-called "Beauty Killer", Gretchen Lowell, the psychopath who tortured him almost to death and then inexplicably let him go.  Now Gretchen is in a psych ward, her legendary beauty marred by the effects of heavy medication.  She claims to know who killed a man who was skinned in a local park, and although Archie knows he shouldn't trust her, he finds himself pulled into her orbit once again.

Cain's last novel, The Night Season, was almost completely devoid of Gretchen, and I think it suffered for it.  But no such worries with this; the woman who would scare Hannibal Lecter is back in fine form.  If you've never read any of Cain's books before, this is NOT the one to start with; it spoils things from previous books and you really need to know the characters.  But if you're familiar with her work, dig in for this gory treat.  (And I do mean GORY; I'm not kidding when I say that I had to stop reading it during my lunch breaks.)

5. Criminal by Karin Slaughter:  GBI agent Will Trent is shocked when his supervisor, Amanda Wagner, forbids him to work on a case involving a missing college student.  But Amanda has her reasons, and in flashbacks, we find out exactly why she doesn't want Will to go digging through the past.  As usual, Slaughter knocks it out of the park with this riveting novel.

6. The Diviners by Libba Bray:  In 1927, after causing a scandal in her Ohio hometown, freewheeling flapper Evie O'Neill is sent to live with her uncle in New York City.  Even though he runs a museum devoted to the occult, Evie is reluctant to tell him that she can learn about a person merely by touching an object of theirs.  But when a serial killer with a decidedly supernatural bent starts terrorizing NYC, Evie is determined to take him down. 

Great literature?  No.  A fun, engrossing read?  As Evie would say, posi-tute-ly!  It's the first in a series, and I can't wait to read the next one.

7. Hanging Hill by Mo Hayder:  When the brutalized body of a popular teenage girl is discovered, police detective Zoe Benedict's investigation leads her to suspect the creepy pornographer who lives on Hanging Hill.  But unknown to her, her estranged sister Sally is working as the man's housekeeper, and their paths collide in shocking ways.  This book is a corker, and the last couple of chapters had me racing slackjawed through the pages going "Oh my god, oh my god".

8. Gone Missing by Linda Castillo:  Police chief Kate Burkholder is stunned when several Amish teenagers go missing.  But did they flee the Amish lifestyle of their own accord, or was foul play involved?

Some of the writing does get repetitive; detective Tomasetti is apparently incapable of saying anything without "growling" it, and she talks about shock being palpable on someone's face twice in the span of four pages.  Still, I'm glad Castillo is back in good form; I didn't care for the last book in this series, but I tore through this one in two days.

9. Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt:  Set in the mid-80's, this novel tells the story of June Elbus, a shy 14-year-old devastated by her beloved uncle's AIDS-related death.  Shortly after Finn's funeral, his lover Toby contacts her, asking for a chance to meet.  Initially she's reluctant, because her mother has convinced her that it's Toby's fault Finn died.  But she finally agrees to see him, and they form a friendship that will change both of their lives forever.  A lyrically beautiful, heartbreaking book.

10. The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker:  Julia is a teenage girl who, like everybody else, is shocked when the earth's rotation inexplicably begins to slow.  The change is unnoticeable at first, but its effects soon become catastrophic.  But in addition to everything else, Julia has to struggle with the trials and tribulations of adolescence, family problems, and first love.  A really gripping and unusual book with some gorgeous turns of phrase.